Does anyone else love zoning out with a few PBS shows? It’s so relaxing to lie on the couch and listen to the late Bob Green (The Painter Guy) wax poetic about how to create a forest of trees or watch the sharply bow-tied Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen describe how egg proteins coagulate with heat. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, a Downton Abbey marathon will be on, but if I’m unlucky, the only thing on will be a Norwegian cooking show shot in the dead of winter with all the cooking done over an open fire pit. However, the real jackpot is when Lidia Bastianich is on air.
I think of Lidia as the Italian grandmother version of Martha Stewart: she has done lots of work running restaurants, writing cookbooks, and establishing Eataly in New York. Beyond that, she does an excellent job of showing her viewers how to make simple and delicious Italian meals. Each of her episodes focuses on one particular region of Italy, which to me is fascinating, because the culinary traditions of Italy vary widely and originate from the geography and culture of the various regions. I’ve made many of her recipes, from tiella to torta al testo (a type of filled focaccia). Yet my favorite recipe from Lidia remains this cauliflower pasta from Molise.
Many of Lidia’s dishes utilize the technique of cucina povera, which roughly translated means “peasant cooking.” Cucina povera often involves using leftover or inexpensive ingredients to create frugal, yet delicious meals. Most of the time, this means finding inventive ways to use day-old bread, and Italians are experts at this, from their panzanellas, crostini, and pasta dishes such as this one. Lidia’s cauliflower pasta is traditionally made with cavatelli (a small, fresh pasta made from curling squares of fresh pasta dough), tender cauliflower florets, and breadcrumbs full of garlic, almonds, and extra-virgin olive oil. For a simpler weeknight version, I use campanelle, which is a frilly dried pasta that traps the breadcrumbs in its bell shaped opening.
The breadcrumbs add a wonderful textural contrast to the al dente pasta and cauliflower, and stay trapped in the curvatures of both. We’ve served this for dinner dozens of times, and I get excited whenever we have left-over bread because I know that this dish may be in the near future.
The sauce is very simple, almost non-existent by some standards, but relies on fruity olive oil, plenty of garlic, and a touch of red pepper flakes. The seasoning must be aggressive, in order to enhance the flavor of the cauliflower. I’m always amazed at the complexity of flavors and textures in this meal, especially considering that it comes together in about half an hour and relies on relatively simple ingredients. It’s a superb weeknight meal that I hope will become part of your weekly rotation.
Campanelle con Cavolfiore e Mollica di Pane (Campanelle with Cauliflower and Bread Crumbs)
Adapted from Lidia Bastianich
Serves 4 to 6
4 oz. day-old bread (for reference, this is about ½ of a baguette)
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon plus 1 tablespoon table salt, divided
¼ cup blanched slivered almonds
1 lb. campanelle pasta
1 head cauliflower (2-3 lbs.), cut into bite size florets
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
- Rip the bread into 2 inch chunks and place them in the bowl of a food processor. If, like me, you hate cleaning the food processor, place a sheet of parchment between the bowl and the lid before closing. This allows you to avoid washing the lid. Pulse the bread for about 1 minute until it forms large bread crumbs. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 400F and heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large, oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the garlic and red pepper flakes and sauté gently until golden brown, then add the almonds, breadcrumbs, and ½ teaspoon salt. Toss to combine, then place the skillet in the oven until the bread crumbs are golden brown and very crisp, 10-12 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil, and once boiling, add 1 tablespoon salt. Add the campanelle and boil until al dente. When there are 6 minutes left in the cooking time for the pasta, add the cauliflower florets and continue to boil until the pasta is done. Drain the pot and transfer the pasta and cauliflower to a large serving bowl.
- Add the bread crumbs, parsley, ½ teaspoon salt, and remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil to the pasta. Toss to combine, adjust seasonings to taste, and serve immediately.